How a GOP hardliner on Cuba changed sides and what it cost him

On a steamy summer day one year ago, standing on a dusty Havana back-road, Carlos Gutierrez was somehow able to find the childhood home he’d last seen more than a half century earlier, before he and his family fled Fidel Castro’s communist revolution.

It’s a blood bank now, but he walked down the street, rounded a curve and recognized it right away: No. 26, a simple one-story house.

More remarkable still was Gutierrez’s presence there at all, helping to lead a high-level American delegation to mark the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

For Gutierrez, the most fascinating journey of all has been an internal one, an intellectual and emotional excursion that has carried him from his role as an anti-Castro hardliner in Republican George W. Bush’s Cabinet to his new role as a champion of American business investment in his homeland.

Gutierrez gives numerous reasons for his policy shift, ranging from having left Miami as a child to his family’s time in Mexico and his later work in China.

By themselves, none of those things had been enough to change his mind. But they culminated in a long talk with President Barack Obama that he found persuasive.

Obama’s talk was like the last drop in a chemistry experiment that makes a liquid solution turn solid in an instant: Each drop that came before it contributed to the change, but only the last one made it happen.

“That sort of opened the door,” Gutierrez told McClatchy . “It forced me to think even more realistically.”

Some one-time friends of the former commerce secretary don’t buy his evolutionary depiction of the shift. They see a financial motive tied to his position as co-chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a high-powered Washington consulting firm that helps open doors for American companies seeking to do business abroad.

“When it’s an outright case of just literally doing it for the money on an issue that he was a big believer in, I’m sorry – I have zero respect for that,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, told McClatchy.

Gutierrez, 62, rejects that kind of judgment.

“I don’t need the money, but I do want to help the country of my birth,” he told McClatchy.

Only three of his nine trips to Cuba in the past year, Gutierrez said, have been for Albright Stonebridge clients. Four have been unpaid excursions as head of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate that he’s headed without compensation since February 2015.

His initial journey in August last year was as part of the official U.S. delegation for the embassy opening in Havana, while his other trip came at the invitation of the Meridian International Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that asked him to join a cultural exchange.

That first morning back in Cuba, filled with wonder, Gutierrez had pulled open the curtain in his room at the Hotel Nacional and looked out at Havana.

“I felt joy,” Gutierrez recalled in an interview at Albright Stonebridge, which he heads along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. His office is just a few blocks north of the U.S Commerce Department, the mammoth federal agency he led less than a decade ago.

“I felt just happy to be in the place that I was born – the place I’d thought so much about and read so much about. It was just a very special feeling. And, then, the people are great.”

As happy as it made him, the homecoming came at a steep personal price.

Gutierrez, a handsome man with a gray mustache on a trim face, had been a hero to Cubans in South Florida and beyond – only the second Cuban-American member of a White House Cabinet. The first, Mel Martinez, served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bush before Gutierrez joined his Cabinet. Martinez later represented Florida in the U.S. Senate.

Gutierrez’s embrace of the Castro regime made him an overnight pariah among his own.

“They see it as betrayal,” Gutierrez said.

Friends stopped talking to him, and not just Diaz-Balart. Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whose election campaign Gutierrez supported in 2014, said he felt blindsided.

“I consider his change of position drastic, and it was unexpected,” Curbelo said.

Some of Gutierrez’s friends felt ambushed.

“It was sad to hear,” Orlando Gutierrez Boronat, secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate in Miami, told McClatchy. “I regret that he’s taken that position.”

Asked whether he and Carlos Gutierrez remain close, Boronat responded, “We were friends. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken with him.”

Doubts about his true motivations anger the normally unflappable Gutierrez.

“Naysayers should have the courage to go to Cuba to see the damage this failed (embargo) policy has done to millions of people, instead of sitting behind a desk making misinformed statements about a country they’ve never visited,” he said.

The former Kellogg Co. CEO said a number of peers from his generation have expressed support privately.

“I’ve spoken with people in their 60s who have told me, ‘Look, I would like to go back to Cuba, but my parents are still alive. And I just can’t do it while they’re still alive,’ ” he said.

Gutierrez left Cuba with his family on July 16, 1960, shortly after the Castro regime had confiscated the pineapple plantation his father co-owned in Majagua, a town in Ciego de Avila province in the center of the island, 250 miles southeast of Havana. He was 6 years old.

The family spent its first 2 1/2 years in the United States in Miami, starting with a three-month stay at the Richmond Hotel on Collins Avenue. They moved to New York and Mexico, where Gutierrez began what would become a three-decade career with Kellogg. In April 1999, he was named the cereal company’s chairman and CEO, becoming the only Latino head of a Fortune 500 company at that time.

While he tries to eat healthy breakfasts, Gutierrez admits an abiding weakness for Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes of Tony the Tiger fame.

“Frosted Flakes and whole milk – hard to beat,” he said.

Gutierrez still lives in Washington, though he often travels abroad and frequently visits friends in South Florida.

Gutierrez’s coming-out declaration on his Cuba conversion arrived in the form of a New York Times column on June 23, 2015, six months after Obama announced that the United States would be restoring diplomatic relations with Havana after a 54-year break grounded in the Cold War.

Under the headline “A Republican Case for Obama’s Cuba Policy,” Gutierrez wrote: “Today, I am cautiously optimistic for the first time in 56 years. I see a glimmer of hope that, with Cuba allowing even a small amount of entrepreneurship and many American companies excited about entering a new market, we can actually help the Cuban people.”

A month earlier, in a speech at Georgetown University, Gutierrez had hinted at his evolving views. He pointed to the increased depth and other improvements at Cuba’s Mariel port, in order to accommodate bigger cargo ships passing through the widened Panama Canal, as a key sign of the Castro government’s commitment to economic reform.

“There are ports on the East Coast of the United States that aren’t ready yet for Panama’s expanded canal, but the Port of Mariel is ready,” Gutierrez said. “So would you build that kind of port if you weren’t thinking about doing something to the economic system?”

In February of this year, Gutierrez introduced visiting Cuban Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca to a standing ovation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, on the same day the two governments signed a commercial aviation agreement in Havana.

“As a proud U.S. citizen born in Cuba, it became very evident to me that the love of the people, the love of the land of my birth – of my parents’ birth, of my grandparents’ birth, the land of my ancestors – that love was greater than any political differences that we could have between the two countries,” Gutierrez told American corporate leaders.

Gutierrez urged Congress to end the economic embargo first imposed on Cuba in October 1960 during President Dwight Eisenhower’s waning weeks in office.

These actions stunned the former commerce chief’s Cuban-American friends. To many, his 180-degree turn from hardliner to peacemaker came out of the blue.

A widely disseminated photograph of a smiling Gutierrez and Malmierca hit like an earthquake in the Cuban-American communities of South Florida, New York and Los Angeles.

“Somebody called me Judas,” Gutierrez said with a rueful smile.

Gutierrez had long been a committed hardliner about Cuba.

As commerce secretary, he co-chaired the Committee for Assistance to a Free Cuba, established by Bush with the express goal of overthrowing the Castro regime.

In September 2008, nearing the end of his tenure at commerce, he said in a speech at the Harvard School of Government: “What the embargo has accomplished, it has denied a sworn enemy of our country more resources that he could use against us.”

At first, he even pronounced himself opposed to Obama’s Cuba policy shift. “The U.S. has given so many concessions and not received anything in return,” he told Time Magazine.

Yet within six months Gutierrez would publish his bombshell column in The New York Times, and his life would undergo a seismic shift.

Gutierrez struggles to pinpoint one thing that caused his change. There was the private chat with Obama and his long experience in China, first with Kellogg and more recently in his current post.

“I’ve watched Chinese who left China go back to China, do business in China and sort of look to the future,” he said “And one question I always had is: Why can’t I do that about Cuba? And that’s where I’ve tried to go objectively.”

Leaving Miami as a youngster, Gutierrez said, also may have left him more open to change.

“I think it’s tougher for people who live in Miami to actually make the intellectual leap that 58 years have transpired – to be able to step back and see Cuba objectively, not emotionally.”

Living for 30 years mainly in Mexico and Battle Creek, Michigan, site of Kellogg headquarters, exposed Gutierrez to different points of view.

On a more personal level, Gutierrez said his father was less ideologically rigid than some other Cuban exiles of his generation. “My father was very realistic,” he said. “He didn’t want to hear about it. He never wanted to go back. From early on, he just said, ‘It’s over, and it will never be the same.’ ”

John Kavulich, the founder and head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, which has promoted trade with Cuba long before the U.S. Chamber ever thought of doing so, believes that in the end, Gutierrez’s sudden public shift on Cuba must remain somewhat mysterious. Over the last year, Gutierrez has picked Kavulich’s brain during numerous meetings and phone talks before and after the former commerce secretary’s trips to Cuba.

“He has gravitas because he was CEO of Kellogg and he was secretary of commerce in a Republican administration,” Kavulich said. “Now he’s had this epiphany. Having an epiphany can be good. The question going forward is: What will he do with his epiphany beyond using it as just a marketing tool? It’s hard to get into someone’s head.”

Jaime Suchliki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuba and Cuban-American Studies, is one Gutierrez friend who hasn’t ended the relationship over Gutierrez’s extraordinary policy shift. Gutierrez is a non-resident scholar there and a member of its advisory board.

The two men went out to breakfast in Miami a few months ago and had a frank conversation. Suchliki asked him if he was out to make money or maneuvering to be ambassador to Cuba, and he said no to both questions.

“I was tough with him, but he kept on giving the line that we have to help the Cuban people, maybe this is going to bring some change,” Suchliki said.

When Gutierrez asked whether Suchliki wanted him to withdraw his ties to the institute, it was Suchliki’s turn to say no.

“I said, ‘I think you’re wrong, but you can have your opinion,’ ” Suchliki recalled.

While Gutierrez feels some sadness about the ruptured friendships, he has made peace with his controversial position.

“I feel very comfortable with where I am,” he told a reporter. “And you can quote me on that.”

CORRECTION: This version corrects the description to what Gutierrez saw out his hotel room window last year.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose